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COLLECTIONBook reviews
TITLERevisioning the Sacred: New Perspectives on a Bahá'í Theology, by Jack McLean: Review
AUTHOR 1Susan Maneck
TITLE_PARENTJournal of Bahá'í Studies
PUB_THISAssociation for Bahá'í Studies
NOTES See also original book.
TAGS- Philosophy; Revisioning the Sacred (book); Theology
CONTENT Review of: Revisioning the Sacred: New Perspectives on a Bahá'í Theology (Studies in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions, volume 8)
Edited by: Jack McLean
Published by: Kalimat Press, Los Angeles, 1997
Review by: Susan Maneck
Review published in: Journal of Bahá'í Studies 9:2 (1999), pp. 91-99

This collection of eight essays represents the first concerted effort on the part of Bahá'í scholars, with academic training in exegesis, history, and comparative religion to address key issues in emergent Bahá'í theology. As such it is a seminal work and one accomplished in the face of a number of obstacles. Since the Bahá'í Faith has no professional clergy and no recognized institutions of higher learning, the scholars in question have typically been trained and work professionally in areas not directly connected to their religion and have had to rely on skills derived from the academic study of religions other than their own. To a certain extent this has provided the authors in question with a certain objectivity. On the other hand, it has to be recognized that these studies lack the background which a fully mature theological tradition would have provided for drawing out the complete implications which the Bahá'í revelation might shed upon the issues being treated here. Indeed, there has been some resistance within the Bahá'í community to the very notion of theology inasmuch as it has all too often associated with dogmatic authority.

Jack McLean, the editor of this volume, defines Bahá'í theology not so much in terms of systematics, but rather as critical reflections "on the specifically religious content of the Word of God" as outlined in three subdisciplines, namely exegesis, critical apologetics, and philosophical theology (xvi). Two of these articles, "The Background and Centrality of Apophatic Theology in Babi and Bahá'í Scripture" and "Hermes Trismegistus and Apollinus of Tyana in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh" address exegetical concerns. The line between critical apologetics and philosophical theology is perhaps less easily drawn, but two articles "The Bahá'í Principle of Religious Unity" and "Interreligious Dialogue and the Bahá'í Faith" are mostly concerned with the relationship of the Bahá'í Faith and other religions, whereas three others, "Bahá'u'lláh and Liberation Theology", "The Spiritual Foundations of Science" and "The Possibilities of Existential Theism", primarily deal with philosophical and theological issues of our day.

The first essay, by Dann May, entitled "The Bahá'í Principle of Religious Unity: A Dynamic Perspectivism", compares the Bahá'í approach to issues of religious pluralism to some of the most pre-eminent religious thinkers in the field, including Wilfred Cantwell Smith, John Hick, Ramakrishna and Raimundo Panikkar, among others. May points out that "the consciousness of the oneness of mankind" provides the central focus of the Bahá'í Faith and that this consciousness rests upon the recognition of the principle of religious unity, which alone can provide the "necessary motivation, devotion, and vision to accomplish truly global fellowship among the peoples of the world" (1). The question our author wishes to address in this essay is: what do we mean when we Bahá'ís speak of the oneness of religion? May argues persuasively that the Bahá'í principle of the unity of religions is based on the conception of the oneness of reality (al haqq.) This, in turn, is grounded on two presumptions: 1) that all religions find their origins in a single transcendent truth which is ultimately their source; 2) that all religions find their highest expression in transforming faith experiences grounded in the spiritual nourishment of prayer and meditation, which lead to the acquisition of spiritual virtues. The essential unity of religions consists, not so much of a common set of spiritual principles viewed as entities but more of a common spiritual motion. While the Bahá'í approach to religious diversity is thus inclusivistic, at the same time, it does not ignore the very real differences which exist among the various religions. The Bahá'í principle of religious unity includes within it aspects of perspectivism and historical relativism. The Bahá'í models differs significantly from the perspectivism of thinkers like John Hick inasmuch as the latter presumes perspectivism operates solely in the direction of human beings to the Absolute, whereas the Bahá'í doctrine of Progressive Revelation assumes that God has adapted His own self-disclosure to the historical periods and needs of humanity. For this reason, May argues, the Bahá'í concept of the essential unity of all religion is "grounded in a process metaphysics" (25).

Dann May's essay makes an important contribution to the subject of religious dialogue, although there were a few areas which raised some questions. At one point May points out that Bahá'í Faith acknowledges the "prophets" or founders of other religions and names Confucius among them. While a footnote quotes `Abdu'l-Bahá in support of this assertion, no mention is made of statements written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which suggest the opposite. While an in-depth treatment of this matter would have gone beyond the scope of this essay, still it would be good to acknowledge that not all Bahá'ís are agreed as to the extent to which the non-Abrahamic traditions have been embraced. I also found somewhat confusing his discussion of differences between the "esoteric" and "exoteric" perspectives on religions, the former characterized as "reflective" and the latter as "devotional." Only the former is usually able to recognize the unitary elements common to the various religious traditions. I found myself quite uncomfortable with this opposition between the "reflective" vs. "devotional" mind set, for it seemed in contradiction to the basic premise of this essay, that it is the spiritual transformation engendered by prayer and meditation in response to revelation (which I would interpret as reflection and devotion together) which forms the basis of the essential unity of religion.

The major weakness of this essay is that it fails to address what is perhaps the Bahá'í Faith's most provocative claim in regards to religious diversity; that Bahá'u'lláh is the Promised One of all religions. I would argue, in other words, that Bahá'í belief in the unity of religion rests not simply in its common origin as sourced in the Absolute, nor in the common transforming power and motion of faith, but also in their common end. Bahá'í eschatological claims play an essential role here which ought not to be ignored. What remains to be explored is the question of whether Bahá'ís can promote such claims without falling prey to one of the most seductive forms of exclusivity, namely triumphalism.

Seena Fazel writes on the related theme of "Interreligious Dialogue and the Bahá'í Faith." He explains the phenomenon of the modern use of the term "dialogue" to describe a variety of interfaith relations wherein those holding different religious beliefs endeavor to express to one another what they mean and to learn from one another in the process. This is to be distinguished from proselytizing and evangelism inasmuch as any transformation which might result from such a conversation ought ideally to be mutual rather than one-sided conversion. Fazel points up numerous scriptural passages which from the Bahá'í standpoint ought to make such dialogue imperative, most notably of course the exhortation to "consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship" (130). The author also illustrates the numerous benefits to be gained from such dialogue, among them: a deepening of our own understanding of the Bahá'í teachings (this is especially true in regards to Islam), a furtherance of religious cooperation for the achievement of world peace and other social goals, and assisting the Bahá'í Faith in emerging from obscurity to be widely recognized as a world religion.

There are a number of challenges which will have to be overcome before the Bahá'í Faith is likely to be taken seriously as a dialogue partner, however. Bahá'í theology itself has not been sufficiently well articulated to participate with any degree of sophistication in many of these discussions. Related to this is the underdevelopment of the mystical and spiritual aspects of Bahá'í Faith which ought ordinarily to provide an important bridge for communication. Furthermore, all too often Bahá'ís have misused opportunities to dialogue in order to "teach" the Faith, i.e. persuade the other party rather than inform them. Finally, the Bahá'í community's low tolerance of internal self-criticism has sometimes made it appear cultish in the eyes of academics and religious leaders. Even where Bahá'ís have enjoyed success in their dialogue with other communities they sometimes experience increasing alienation when relating to their own. Seena Fazel's reflections on the need and challenges of religious dialogue provides fruitful material for examining our relationship with other religions as well as our own internal dynamics.

Stephen Lambden's essay, "The Background and Centrality of Apophatic Theology in Babi and Bahá'í Scripture" situates the Bahá'í doctrine of the unknowability of the Divine Essence within the historical background of the via negativa as it developed within the Abrahamic religions as they came to terms with Greek philosophical thought, especially gnosticism and Neo-platonism around the beginning of the Christian Era. This doctrine, as it is articulated within the Bahá'í Faith, avoids becoming a "bloodless theological abstraction" of cold remoteness by emphasizing the Manifestation of God as the only meaningful expression of the "personality" of God. It is by this means that Bahá'ís are able to affirm a theology of nearness and accessibility with the Divine. It would be useful, for comparative purposes, to whether other religions holding to this same concept of the unknowability of God, succeed in affirming, none-the-less His accessibility, and if so, by what means. Overall, I found this essay one of the richest of the collection and the most valuable as a contribution to understanding the context in which Bahá'ís doctrines have been articulated.

Along the same lines is the essay by Keven Brown entitled, "Hermes Trismegistus and Appolinius of Tyana in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh" which examines the impact of the Hermetic legacy within Islam on Bahá'í thought. Brown shows that although the Hermetic texts date only from the early centuries of the Christian Era, Hermes Trismegistus came to be associated early on with the Qur'anic prophet Idris, thought to be identical with the Biblical Enoch. Hermes/Idris/Enoch is thought to be the first philosopher, and Bahá'u'lláh Himself refers to him as such (154). Bahá'u'lláh's teachings on creation and alchemy correspond very closely to what is found in these Hermetic texts, as does His position on the relationship between divine providence and human free will.

In many ways this essay is a follow-up on Dr. Juan Cole's earlier study of Bahá'u'lláh's treatment of Greek philosophy, entitled "Problems of Chronology in Bahá'u'lláh's Tablet of Wisdom" (World Order 13:3). Like it, the essay exams the problems created by the discrepancies between what Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá say regarding various Greek philosophers and the historical evidence. Brown presents two alternative perspectives Bahá'ís might have on this issue and adduces statements from the Central Figures and from the House of Justice which might be used to support either one. The first alternative is to accept, on the basis of Bahá'u'lláh's authority, statements made in regards historical matters as literally true whether or not it accords with the findings of academic scholarship. The second is to contextualize Bahá'u'lláh's statements in regards to past events as being intended to illustrate spiritual principles which are true regardless of their historicity. In illustrating these two alternatives, Keven Brown is restating the arguments made a century ago by Mirza 'Abu'l-Fadl in addressing questions related to the historicity of narratives contained in the Qur'an. Like Mirza 'Abu'l-Fadl, Brown favors the second approach as being the only one compatible with academic scholarship. While this is clearly the case, Brown's essay fails to adequately address the question of how we then treat authoritative interpretations made by 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi in regards to these very statements regarding Greek philosophers which seem to endorse the first position. But it may be that such a task would be impossible without a more thorough study of the nature of authoritative interpretation with the Bahá'í Faith.

In "Bahá'u'lláh and Liberation Theology" Professor Juan Cole discusses the implications of Bahá'u'lláh's revelation in terms of the Liberation Theology developed within Latin American. Liberation Theology draws upon the Exodus story and the prophetic tradition as a whole to express God's special commitment to and identification with the plight of the poor as a means for legitimizing their struggle for justice involving, in most cases, some form of political agitation, whether violent or non-violent. It is therefore a theology of revolution. He argues that while the Bahá'í Faith eschews both violence and party politics as a means to obtain its goals of social transformation, a theology of liberation, is integral to Bahá'u'lláh's revelation. Cole seeks to establish this by drawing upon such statements from the Writings such as "the Ancient Beauty hath consented to be bound with chains that mankind may be released from its bondage" (80). Cole points to the contrasts Bahá'u'lláh makes between the spiritual dangers and temptations associated with wealth versus the virtues of poverty. From this the conclusion is drawn that the poor are spiritually superior to the rich and are their equals in civil society, for Bahá'u'lláh urges all to "eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land" (84).

Besides criticizing excessive attachment to worldly riches, Bahá'u'lláh condemns political tyranny as well. While Bahá'u'lláh urges the poor to endure their sufferings patiently, He stresses their dignity and independent agency by encouraging them to strive to obtain an adequate means of livelihood. According to Cole, Bahá'u'lláh also calls upon them to work "ceaselessly toward the creation of a new civilization wherein the extreme of wealth and poverty would be eliminated at last" (92).

One problem in interpreting Bahá'í doctrine as "Liberation Theology" lies in the fact that Bahá'ís are usually discouraged from involving themselves in political affairs. Cole regards this a temporary measure adopted by `Abdu'l-Bahá, made in response to the turmoil of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution which has been maintained by the Bahá'í community in its early stage of development to avoid internal divisions. Cole argues that avoidance of party politics should not exclude social activism among Bahá'ís. "The poor, like other Bahá'ís," according to Cole, "are called upon to denounce tyranny and infractions against basic human rights, to work for parliamentary democracy, to allow for the expression of the views of the humblest Bahá'í within the community, and to reform the world's economy so as to reflect the divine attribute of justice" (93).

In connection with this Cole points out that Bahá'u'lláh calls for state intervention the poor by implementing a graduated income tax, prohibiting slavery, and cutting back on military budgets. Indeed, what Bahá'u'lláh expects is basic structural changes grounded in faith and universal love which will bring about the total transformation of society, enriching and empowering the poor.

Dr. Cole's essay provides a very provocative look at the implications of Bahá'í theology in terms of current political trends. There were several instances, however, where his logic seemed flawed, where historical evidence does not support his basic thesis, and where his selection of scripture was misleadingly unbalanced. He notes, for instance, that the Bahá'í Faith membership has largely been drawn from the poor and dispossessed in Third World countries, attracted by the Bahá'í system of governance with its emphasis on elected bodies (rather than a professional clergy) which insures that the poor have a real and effective voice within Bahá'í communities. This ignores the reluctance on the part of most of impoverished people who have embraced the Bahá'í Faith to participate fully in such administrative institutions. It appears highly unlikely that the existence of such bodies were the means of attracting the poor and dispossessed.

Equally confusing is Cole's suggestion that a "truly Bahá'í society" "would guarantee basic human rights as outlined in United Nations declarations and covenants." It is difficult to reconcile this statement with Dr. Cole's earlier insistence that any Bahá'í theology must be grounded in "scripture and theophanology" (81). As laudatory as such United Nations documents might be, they hardly constitute Divine Revelation!

Dr. Cole insists that Bahá'u'lláh's praise for the British style of "parliamentary democracy" [sic] after 1868 indicated His belief that the poor should have a voice in their own governance. While Bahá'u'lláh would not likely have objected to such sentiments, this can hardly be concluded from His praise of the constitutional monarchy in England, which by 1868 had only enfranchised the moneyed classes. The British Parliament, far which representing the interests of the poor, had risen to power by supporting the property rights of the wealthy and capitalist classes.

An example of an unbalanced use of scriptural sources can been seen in the way Cole describes Bahá'u'lláh's condemnation of wordly detachment and draws from this implications regarding treatment of the poor. Cole cites the Hidden Words (Arabic, no. 57) to establish that in order for the wealthy to cleanse themselves of the defilement of their riches, they must bestow it upon the poor rather than make it over to a family member. This ignores other statements by Bahá'u'lláh such as "The beginning of magnamity is when man expendeth his wealth on himself, on his family and on the poor among his bretheren in his Faith."

As necessary as it is to relate the Bahá'í Faith to current problems, there is always the danger of presenting a distorted picture of the Teachings which assimilates them to current trends such that they lose their distinctive character. While there are certainly some correspondences between the goals of a Bahá'í conception of a New World Order and those of Liberation Theology, this should not blind us to differences. The method Bahá'ís must utilize disavows not only the use of violence but also "conflict and contention."

In the fourth essay of this collection, "The Spiritual Foundations of Science", Anjam Khursheed argues that, contrary to the prevailing concept that empiricism and positivism (which the author treats as largely identical schools) are philosophies representative of the scientific method, in actuality science is "founded on spiritual values, a search for meaning, a faith in the rationality and unity of the universe, and the search to acquire universal truths" (120). Khursheed seeks to establish this thesis by discussing the opposing views to empiricism offered by philosophers of science such as Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, John Marks, and Paul Feyerabend. He also attempts to present the Bahá'í point of few on this issue which, as he sees it, holds that "the preconditions necessary for acquiring truth, including scientific truth, lie first in acquiring spiritual characteristics" and that "the ability to acquire knowledge depends upon cultivating certain moral and spiritual prerequisites" (109-110). In line with Popper's falsifiability criterion, one wonders how the author would explain advancements made in rocket technology by Nazis during World War II.

The philosophers of science mentioned by Khursheed are generally those who dominated the field some forty to sixty years ago. It would have been good to look at more modern studies conducted by those trained in the sociology of knowledge or informed by history and culture studies. But, of course the purpose of this essay is to explore what the Bahá'í Faith might have to say about the nature of scientific investigation. Here Khursheed argues that the Bahá'í Writings make no clear distinction between scientific and other forms of knowledge, inferring that Bahá'ís themselves should make no such distinction. This ignores the fact that, in part, this lack of distinction is a product of the language in which Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá expressed Themselves. The direct cognate of science in Persian is shenaz, a word which in compasses a great deal more than the hard sciences. The broader use of the word "science" in the Writings, may therefore represent a limitation of language rather than an epistemological commitment. I was rather uncomfortable as a whole to the author's use of phrases such as the "Bahá'í point of view" or the "Bahá'í conception of science" in an authoritative manner which presumes that this perspective is commonly shared within the Bahá'í community, or unambiguously found in the Writings. This is especially problematic in view of the fact that many of the author's presuppositions appear to be based on passages from The Promulgation of Universal Peace, a text of questionable reliability. An enquiry into issues related to Bahá'í epistemology, upon which any Bahá'í philosophy of science would have to be based, requires a much more thorough examination of the Writings, both translated and untranslated, before such categorical conclusions can be reached regarding a "Bahá'í viewpoint."

Although according to the Table of Contents the final essay of this collection ought to have been "Promises to Keep: Thoughts on an Emerging Bahá'í Theology", the reader will be delighted to find what is no doubt a much richer piece entitled "The Possibilities of Existential Theism for Bahá'í Theology." Here Jack McLean compares the existential dimensions of the Bahá'í Writings to those of such thinkers as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sarte. Existentialism is an intellectual movement which began in the early half of the nineteenth century with Soren Kierkegaard's critique of Hegelian and Kantian universalism, which (Kierkegaard argued) failed to address the most crucial issues of existence, namely the individual's subjective experience of suffering, anxiety and despair. Emphasizing man's angst-filled search for meaning, it impacted philosophy, literature and psychology in the period following World War II.

McLean illustrates that Bahá'u'lláh's more mystical writings, written during the Baghdad period, address very cogently the existential condition. In connection with this, he discusses the story of the grammarian and the mystic knower as contained in the Four Valleys, along with the story of the lost lover as found in the Seven Valleys. Also brought to bear on this topic is the passage on the 'true seeker' in the Kitab-i-Iqan. McLean feels that current Bahá'í scholarship, with its emphasis on history, exegesis, and theology, has become too "bound by content" and a concern for objectivity. Pointing to Bahá'u'lláh's description of the 'true seeker' as full of "earnest striving, of longing desire, of passionate devotion, of fervid love, of rapture and ecstasy," McLean argues that Bahá'í scholars should instead conduct their work as fully engaged subjects, for "religion is all about a sense of commitment" (193).

McLean persuasively draws out the existential dimensions found in the Bahá'í Writings. One wonders, however, how existentialist concerns for the particular over the universal can be reconciled with the Bahá'í emphasis on unity. Some knowledge of Islamic existentialism, with its abiding concern with community, might have helped us in resolving this question. Furthermore, McLean's discussion of the qualities of the engaged, subjective seeker ignores Bahá'u'lláh's exhortation to "so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth." In connection with this, this reader could not help but feel that the author, perhaps misled by the neutral language utilized by the academic Bahá'í scholar in their discourse, had mistakenly described them as somehow disengaged. Clearly any Bahá'í scholar, having devoted years to acquiring difficult languages for the study of a subject having no respectability within the academic community, must be profoundly engaged. But the scholar, in describing findings within an academic setting, is engaged in a very different task than when one attempts to apply the Writings for the purposes of one's personal transformation. To take the metaphor from the Four Valleys a bit further, while Bahá'u'lláh may require the grammarian to throw aside his text books when plunging into the sea of grandeur, the mystic knower must take them up again if he is to write a journal article describing the experience!

The essays in this collection suggest a number of directions for Bahá'í theology. First, at this stage in our development, one cannot help but think that exegetical studies such as those conducted by Stephen Lambden and Keven Brown are the most essential, for until we better understand the meaning of the Writings within the context in which they were written, it will be difficult to ascertain what they are to mean to us today. This was the primary weakness of the essays written by Juan Cole and Anjam Khursheed. There is less danger in certain topics of a more mystical/transformative character such as that explored by Jack McLean. And certainly issues such as the relationship of the Bahá'í Faith to other religions cannot wait for the translation work of the bulk of our scriptures to be completed. Still, we must proceed with caution and tentatively, lest we suffer prematurely from hardening of the categories.

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